Technology

Political Responsibility in the Internet Age

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Those of us who have the dubious honour of involvement in ‘left-wing twitter’ will be aware of the recent drama instigated by the official account of Scottish Labour Students.

The short of it is that they tweeted ‘ACAB’, meaning “All cops are bastards”, in response to a tweet claiming that police shut down a Trans Pride event in London. Despite the general media illiteracy of his wing of the party, Corbynite Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard did the PR savvy thing, and swiftly disavowed the tweet in question. 

This is only a recent example of a broader trend of social media statements causing controversy for political figures. Be it Rosie Duffield’s recent and largely publicised twitter argument regarding trans rights, or young party activists saying horrendously offensive or bizarre things (Labour or Conservative, take your pick); all of these are a microcosm of the influence of social media and the internet on political discourse and party membership.

The ability to instantly and publicly give your take on hot topics, for all the world to see, encourages a culture of flippancy and aggression (often spilling into abuse on darker corners of the internet), in pursuit of the most clicks, likes or retweets. The often toxic and unpleasant atmosphere of internet political spheres becomes more problematic for political parties and organisations, when self-contained internet communities form around parties, or factions within.

The distribution of opinion in political parties certainly doesn’t help in this regard. As argued by political scientist John D May, the relationship between ideological intensity and political decision making power runs on a bell curve distribution. The party elite and mostly uninvolved voters or members, at either end of the curve respectively, are the least ideological in their concerns. The “middle-elite” – local party activists, holders of elected office in sub-national party organs etc – are generally the most ideological group in a party, not as directly concerned with electoral success as the party elite are, and therefore tend to be the least restrained in their public airing of dirty political laundry. 

My own experience is with Labour circles on twitter (Conservative twitter seems generally smaller but prone to the same ailments.) As with the internet more broadly, discussions can easily go sour, with participants firing personal shots at each other, or making outrageous statements for clout among their own group. As the recent debacle with Scottish Labour Students demonstrates, even the official accounts of party political organs can be sucked into this low level of debate. The inevitable disavowal by politicians of the accounts involved shows that some political strategists accept an uncomfortable truth: as a party member or activist, anything you say about politics on the internet can very easily be used against you and the party.

If you are an active political party member, who sincerely wants them to do well, and accept the reality that anything you say can be turned on the party, this must lead to only one conclusion: party members have a responsibility, both individual and collective, to not act in such a way as to bring the party into disrepute.

Party membership should not exclusively be a vehicle through which you express your own beliefs and attempt to see them realised. Paradoxically, if you know some of your opinions are radical, potentially offensive, or damaging to the party, membership should entail an acknowledgement that for the collective benefit of the party, you should at least keep the expression of such beliefs behind closed doors, where your own poor choice of words or ideological zeal cannot negatively reflect upon the public standing of the party.

Party membership makes you part of a collective effort for the success of that party, and all collective efforts entail a level of individual sacrifice. In this case, individual party members should accept that by virtue of party membership, they partially sacrifice their right to air some of their opinions in public. Parties of the left, despite the ideological emphasis on collectivism, seem to be the ones who struggle most with concealing the politically unsightly impulses of activists (or even occasionally MPs, as Dawn Butler exemplified recently).

This is not to say that parties should strive to become ideologically homogenous or totally stifle dissent, but more that airing vociferous intra-party disagreement in public forums is both electorally unwise, and a failure of the personal political responsibility that membership entails. This puts party elites in a tough position of either needing to create new and more private forums for intra-party debate, or to take much greater executive control over the social media presence of officials and activists.

With social media fiascos making more headlines by the day, major political parties need to find a solution to this trend, or it could be their undoing.

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